“A thousand trains a day entered or left Chicago.” With that opening statement in Eric Larson’s historical non-fiction book, The Devil in the White City, the reader is drawn into the compelling story of two men who traveled two diametrically opposite paths in life, one man achieving his greatest notoriety through the planning and overseeing of the infamous Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and one man achieving notoriety through cruel inhumane serial killing.
Both men lived in the second most populous city at a time when countless young people, in particular young women, left home and traveled by train in search of a bright future and employment, many as seamstresses and typists. Chicago was a city often thought of as the Black City because of the coal smoke hanging over the city, the raw sewage, lack of clean water and diseases. Chicago was also a city where many people died from not only accidental deaths but also murder. The author records there were approximately 800 violent murders during the first six months of 1892.
This is the story of Daniel Burnham, an architect, and the crowning achievement of his life, that of being the lead designer and overseer of the fascinating story of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. This is also the story of H. H. Holmes, a doctor, a licensed pharmacist and an infamous serial killer.
Daniel Burnham minutely planned and oversaw the extreme challenges, obstacles and frustrations that went into the one square mile construction of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair which became commonly known as the White City because all of the approximately two hundred buildings were painted white. The Chicago World’s Fair introduced and showcased to the public many spectacular features such as: the gigantic 264-foot Ferris wheel, clean piped water, extensive electrical lighting and clean public restrooms. Much of the fair was a prototype of what Daniel Burnham thought Chicago should look like. This is the story of how thousands of hard-working individuals joined together and pushed themselves against deadlines, to build something magnificently exquisite, beautiful, exotic and positive in the lives of people.
This is also the story of one young man, H. H. Holmes, who walked an opposite path in life and whose actions resulted in cruel and painful death, many of the victims being young women. While the World’s Fair was being planned and constructed, Holmes was building his own house a short distance away, which neighbors called a castle because of its immense size. The house contained soundproof rooms, a basement with a hot enough kiln to burn human bodies. Some of the rooms were turned into apartments and other rooms became hotel rooms for people attending the fair.
This is a story that leads the reader to ponder the psyche of human beings. What is there about the human psyche and the environment that will cause some men to follow a path that leads to the negative legacy of serial killing but leads another man to achieving greatness that leaves a positive imprint on the world?
The Devil in the White City by Eric Larson Vantage Books
A Division of Random House, Inc., New York, 2003, 432 pages